Why Fake News is Fake

Donald Trump was quick to deploy a familiar Fake News soundbite on his trip to the UK this week. When questioned in a press conference about the crowds in London who were protesting against his visit, his response was that he hadn’t seen the protests, and “a lot of it is fake news”.

It is increasingly obvious what Donald Trump means by the term Fake News – it means news that he disagrees with. There are countless examples of there being a documented fact on the one side and a condemnation of said fact as Fake News on the other, but there was something about the brazen dismissal of the protests, while the sound of them was audible during the press conference, which put the issue into technicolour. Dismissing something as false where there is immediate evidence that is is happening at the same time provokes the wider question of what the term actually means.

So Donald Trump says Fake News when what he means is news that opposes his world view, provided by the ‘Corrupt Media’, which is another one of his favourite Twitter go-to phrases. But it’s clever because for much of his base, I suspect this nuance is lost. When he says something is Fake, they take that on face value, and his world view is reinforced. It explains why he has a particular zeal when condemning something which is genuinely incorrect, as this can reinforce his wider usage. That probably explains this week’s overdone attack on Bette Midler as a “Washed up psycho” after she admitted tweeting out a Trump quote which wasn’t true. Seizing on instances of genuine Fake News allows the myth to be perpetuated that the instances of fakery are as widespread as the President would have us believe, and will add further belief to those who are prepared to take all of his utterances at face value.

And whatever daftness the President may spew out on Twitter, he will be well aware of how weaponising the term Fake News has allowed him to dismiss any or all attacks on him. He showed this week that he understands the value of words all too well. Speaking to Piers Morgan about climate change, he said: “I believe there’s a change in weather, and I think it changes both ways. Don’t forget, it used to be called global warming, that wasn’t working, then it was called climate change. Now it’s actually called extreme weather, because with extreme weather you can’t miss.” What he is doing here is attacking the notion of climate change by suggesting that people keep on changing how they refer to it so that they can get the message across, therefore suggesting that it isn’t actually real because scientists keep having to sell it with a different word. He dismisses the science of climate change by focusing the conversation on the presentation of it, rather than the facts behind it. It is a very clever demonstration of how to use language to make your point, and affirms to me that he knows exactly what he is doing with the term Fake News.

Away from Mr Trump, it is also interesting that this week has seen two independent stories about dictionaries being asked to change definitions because of racial sensitivities, further demonstrating the impact that single words can have on the political and social spectrum. It is to dictionary-makers’ credit that changes are being made.

Dictionary.com is going to change the way it defines the word Black in response to the My Black is Beautiful campaign and the #redefineblack hashtag. The campaign has pointed out how some of the negative definitions of the word black can seem to co-exist with definitions of skin colour, leading to pejorative associations. Dictionary.com has now responded by saying it will swap the order of its definitions around, so that the definition which refers to people will now be above and not below the definition which reads “soiled or stained with dirt.” It said “While there are no semantic links between these two senses, their proximity on the page can be harmful. It can lead to unconscious associations between this word of identity and a negative term.” It’s a subtle change, but a subtle change which can make a more than subtle difference.

Meanwhile, Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary has changed the meaning of the word Monolid, previously defined as ‘an upper eyelid without a fold, perceived by some in Asia to give an appearance of lethargy or laziness’. Following a complaint from a woman in Melbourne, Macquarie has updated the definition to ‘an upper eyelid without a fold, a characteristic of the eyes of many people of East Asian ethnicity’.

What does all this tell us? That the minutiae of word meanings matter, and that people are sensitive to them. And therefore, the games which people in power play with language have the power to cause genuine harm.

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A world of mentrification

Sometimes a great new word needs some nurturing before it can truly take off. I wonder if that will be case with a striking new word which hit the news this week.

The term ‘Mentrification’ was coined on Tumblr by a user called @obstinatecondolement. It basically describes the process whereby the achievement of women in creating or developing something popular is overwritten by men taking all the glory, such as women being at the forefront of software development in an industry where men now take all the credit.

Men claim to dominate the computer industry

The word gained quick prominence due to an excellent piece in the Guardian celebrating its arrival, saying it had gone viral on Tumblr and as an example of when “a single word arrives to describe something widely perceived and innately known yet not already explained”.

And yet, when I went onto social media and the wider web for verification that this word was truly taking off, I found virtually nothing. Not a trending hashtag, not a term that seems to be showing any great sense of usage, no other articles commenting or dicussing what appears to be a striking new neologism. All that is out there is a few people retweeting the original Guardian piece and praising it, without the sense that the word has yet taken on a life of its own.

Should we be surprised by this? Actually not at all. The contention of the piece is that Mentrification is “shorthand for a process that isn’t as much about men versus women as it is about a traditional culture that is still – still – gendered masculine, and whose behavioural default is to masculinise anything that challenges it.”

I looked up statistics for gender usage of Twitter. According to Statista, two thirds of Twitter users are male. So in a male-dominated environment, where men traditionally ride roughshod over the interests of women, is it any wonder that a word which points this out is struggling to garner attention? Is this not just another example of dominant interests closing ranks to ensure that the alternative viewpoint is not heard?

So Mentrification might currently be struggling to find its audience. But it fits the brief as a strong-sounding word which fulfils a semantic need. It just requires more people with big followings to start using on a regular basis. And then maybe there will be a small move back towards redressing the historical balance.

Winter is Coming for Snowflakes

When I was writing last week’s Wordability column, I found myself pondering the new meaning for the world Snowflake, that is, a person who is over-emotional or easily offended, someone who can brook no argument with opposing points of view.

So I’m quite pleased I waited a week, because this week Merriam-Webster announced a raft of new words and revised definitions in their dictionary, and Snowflake’s new identify was celebrated.

It’s interesting though that in the revised definition, the focus remains on the sensitivity side, rather than the inability to deal with an opposing argument. I have seen the word Snowflake used with increasing ferocity in online debates about Brexit, political correctness, the environment, and other divisive issues of the day. It has certainly become the standard term to throw at anybody who seems to have a more liberal view of the world, and is used to suggest that those who think that way are somehow lacking, lesser people. To be honest, I have become increasingly annoyed about it. And if you want to call me a snowflake for saying that, well so be it.

Of course, the irony of the timing of this dictionary update should not be lost on anyone. Snowflake’s update comes on the same weekend that Winter is finally coming on televisions across the globe, with the titanic Game of Thrones battle between the living and dead about to be screened.

Whoever prevails in that battle, wouldn’t it be good if the snowflakes could prevail in the online battles of the day, and the thought out and nuanced positions which they often represent can successfully withstand the name calling and heat which often comes from the other wide. Then we could perhaps confirm that Winter is Coming in the most positive sense.

Time to Scrub Up

It’s not uncommon for advertising companies to coin new words in an effort to get their new product to take off, and many words and phrases from the world of advertising have done exactly what they say on the tin and entered common usage.

Whether the Axe male grooming range achieves this feat remains to be seen however, though you can’t criticise them for their efforts at least. Agency 72andsunny has created the word ‘Bathsculinity’, meaning to be confident in yourself inside and outside the bathroom, and is hoping that its series of adverts, starring actor and comedian Lil’ Rel Howery, will promote what it means to have bathroom self-confidence and will grow the Axe brand and cement the word in popular usage.

Adam Koppel, creative director at 72andSunny Amsterdam, said: “The purpose of the ‘bathsculinity’ campaign is to start a new conversation around masculinity in the 21st century about what it really means to be a man.” From a personal perspective, I find the word quite clumsy and not easy to say, which is always an indicator to me that something will struggle to catch on, while it is also not fulfilling a genuine semantic need. I don’t hold out enormous hope for Bathsculinity’s prospects.

The concreteberg (pic Thames Water)

Of course, if your thing is pouring concrete in the bath, then there is a word for you. We have become accustomed of late to fatbergs, enormous solid lumps being found in water systems which need to be destroyed. But this week, I read about a ‘concreteberg’ for the first time, as I suspect most people did, as Thames Water struggled to deal with a 100-metre, 105-ton lump of concrete in a Victoria sewer in central London. It is unclear exactly how it formed, though people pouring concrete down drains and sewers is a likely contributor. What is much clearer is that it will take around two months and lots of money to remove it.

While London is blocked under the surface, it has also suffered delays and hold-ups at ground level as well, as Extinction Rebellion has protested over the impact of climate change, bringing the name of this group into public consciousness. Separately, an interesting Swedish word is gaining traction on social media as a way of highlighting activities which have an impact on climate change. Flygskam, meaning flight shame, is increasingly appearing on postings as a hashtag to highlight the shame people are beginning to feel about the number of flights they take and the impact this is having on the environment.

As activists continue to insist that only fundamental changes to our lifestyles will arrest the climate damage now happening, it will be interesting to see whether Flygskam makes the leap across languages to become a de facto global term which people use when they are, or aren’t, flying.

And finally, an interesting tale from Australia, where Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore has suggested that the term disabled is insulting and should be dropped from society as it demeans disabled people, suggesting instead that they should be referred to as ‘access inclusion seekers’.

I am lucky enough not to be disabled, but can judge this fairly easily on the reaction of disabled people, which has been an almost universal dismissal of the idea and a suggestion that the new term is at best unnecessary but is actually patronising and insulting to boot. Clearly another new word which isn’t needed.

 

A Time of Peace and Harmony

We all know that we live in extraordinary, tumultuous, unprecedented times. What many of us don’t feel at the moment is that we live in times of peace and harmony. And the words which have dominated the recent news agenda reflect that sentiment.

Reiwa in characters (Photo: Prime Minister of Japan’s Office)

Except in Japan, where the dawn of a new imperial era in May has been greeted with its new official name, Reiwa. Japanese officials have translated Reiwa as ‘Beautiful Harmony’. However, even that has created disharmony and discord with certain people, with social media concerns being raised that the term actually refers to command and control, as that is one possible meaning of the ‘Rei’ part of the term. In our current, febrile society, even giving something a name of positivity will generate controversy and a backlash.

In the UK and US of course, the political maelstroms surging around us are nothing if not acrimonious. As the tortured Brexit process lurches into yet another new phase, the word ‘Flextension’ has started to be used in earnest in the last couple of weeks. ‘Flextension’ is basically a flexible extension, and is being proposed by EU Council President Donald Tusk as a way of the UK having its cake and eating it. Here you go, have an extension until next year, but don’t use all of it if you don’t need it.

Wouldn’t flextensions be wonderful things if they became a permanent feature of our lives. We kind of want something finished by next Tuesday, but frankly, if it takes another three months, don’t worry! Homework due in tomorrow. Flextension please! Of all the ludicrous words Brexit has given us, here is one we could apply brilliantly to everyday life, a new word to justify permanent laziness.

What it certainly isn’t is a word of peace and harmony. Nobody can even seem to agree on what flexibility a flextension should offer, which seems to negate the point of it in the first place. We may soon have to start talking about flexible flextensions. It’s like mirrors reflecting mirrors reflecting mirrors.

On the other side of the Atlantic, discord from beyond the grave. Former first lady Barbara Bush has been quoted as having written in her diary in 1990 “Trump now means Greed, selfishness and ugly.” A sentiment from some time ago but one which backed up other concerns she had over him, as revealed in a newly published biography. At least the President responded with concern and sensitivity, being quoted as saying: “I have heard that she was nasty to me, but she should be. Look what I did to her sons.” Good to see mature and reasoned debate in these peaceful times.

Outside politics, a number of other language issues point to issues of disharmony. For example, British paralympian Dame Sarah Storey believes that such is the animosity towards cyclists, a new word should be coined for people who ride to work on a bike, to differentiate them from racing cyclists, for example.

Pointing out that Dutch has words for just such a distinction, she was quoted as saying: “We need to realise that a cyclist isn’t just a Lycra-clad yob, as per the stereotype, and that cyclists are just people on bikes moving around on a mode of transport.”

The need to protect cyclists is fair enough – a recent Australian survey came up with the bewildering result that more than half of car drivers think cyclists are not fully human. But I don’t think that giving cyclists a different name is going to address this legitimate concern. I think it will just lead to people thinking that this newly-named group remain sub-human for some reason, and attitudes will remain unchanged. Education and road awareness is what is needed, not another word in our cycling vocabulary.

There are of course times when a new word can help with driving issues. Texting and driving is a growing concern, and people don’t listen properly to rules and regulations not to do it. The American Automobile Association is launching a new campaign to encourage people to stop becoming distracted by texting while driving, calling the habit ‘Intexicated’. It’s quite a neat new word and it will be interesting to see if it has a life beyond an individual awareness campaign.

One other area where there always appears to be disharmony is veganism. I have written recently about the supposed misappropriation of the word cheese to vegan products. Well now the debate over other words being used for plant-based produce is back again, with the EU unveiling new proposals that would stop words such as burger and sausage being used for non-meat produce. Instead these items might be renamed discs or tubes to describe their shape. I maintain that this kind of linguistic prejudice against non-animal derived produce is as nonsensical now as it was when the cheese debate was raging a few weeks ago. Language changes, our understanding of these words changes, and a veggie sausage is a veggie sausage. Nobody is going to buy it expecting pork. But nonetheless, these debates will continue and will face further European legislation later this year.

Of course, depending on the outcome of the Flextension, the UK may not have to deal with this linguistic debate going forward. But whether it does or not, the country will not have a few months of beautiful harmony ahead of it. Maybe that planned UK trade deal with Japan cannot come quickly enough.

Making Up For Lost Time

I ran out of time to write a new Wordability post last week. Basically, I just didn’t organise myself properly. Fortunately, I have had a couple of linguistic pointers recently to help myself prepare a better schedule so that I can continue to publish once a week.

Inspiration comes of course from Donald Trump, amid reports that a large amount of his daily schedule is devoted to something called ‘Executive Time’. Naturally enough his staff has been quick to characterise these great swathes of undocumented hours as opportunities for the President to be busy with all manner of important activities which he doesn’t want officially recorded.

But inevitably, it has become another linguistic stick with which to beat the President, with the phrase becoming rapidly adopted as a way to criticise what he may, or may not be doing, while others are now simply using the phrase Executive Time as their excuse for not having got on with an activity that they were really supposed to have accomplished. Clearly, I am doing the same, and was flat out with Executive Time last week, so couldn’t write Wordability.

The interesting thing is why it seems to be particularly prevalent now. Executive Time as a concept first appeared just over a year ago, but has gained new oxygen recently. Perhaps it’s the President’s possible redefinition of the term ‘National Emergency’ which has focused attention on some of the other phrases which surround him.

I’m not convinced that Executive Time is the best way to get anything done. Perhaps Micro-Scheduling would be the better option. Micro-Scheduling involves planning everything down to the second so that maximum productivity can be achieved. This seems the very antithesis of Executive Time, unless that time is filled with a micro schedule which is not made public. On balance though I doubt that even a meticulously planned week would have allowed me to write a blog. I find that when I have a week which is packed full of scheduled activity, I have enough energy left to crawl onto the nearest couch and eat crisps. In truth, these options seem like opposite ends of the productivity schedule, and neither is really the path to success.

Whichever way we choose to plan our time, young people have certainly been in the news recently trying to make the most of it. We were treated to the UK’s first ‘Student Strike’ this week as thousands of schoolchildren descended on City Centres to protest about Climate Change. Though if you believed Conservative Minister Andrea Leadsom, there is a different way to define the term:

So, good to see our political leaders taking the views of young people seriously.

A Cambridge Professor has also been interested by the activities of the young, and has suggested they might be reacting to something he has termed Nepocide, a portmanteu of Nepotism and Genocide. Professor Tony Booth, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Commonwealth Education at the University of Cambridge, defines it as: “the conscious willingness to sacrifice future generations for current convenience.” It seems that young people are fighting back against this and may not be prepared to accept that some of the luxuries we live with today are worth it, if there is too high a price to pay tomorrow. The Student Strike would support this way of thinking, though Andrea Leadsom might disagree.

And to finish, something completely different. The term Bokeh is one that is well known from photography circles, meaning the ability to blur out certain parts of a photo to accentuate others, something which is now possible on smartphones such as the iPhone. Apple has released a new advert where one mother is angry with another for using this effect to make her child blurry in the background. “Why did you bokeh my child?” she asks:

Is To Bokeh set to become a new insult in the world of smartphone photography. Or has this been at the heart of all our issues all along. Perhaps Donald Trump’s full schedule was merely Bokeh’d before we got to see it.

Under The Influence

In our interconnected world, the ability of individuals to influence the thinking of others on a global scale has probably never been greater. Being retweeted by somebody with a huge number of followers can be an enormous boost, while the ability to spread fake news and therefore influence the views of countless others is a power which has never existed before.

Interesting then that this week, I have come across a lot of new or unfamiliar words which focus on people or things which strongly influence us.

The Guardian in particular has been leading the way. In one piece, it described the growing trend for people such as Marie Kondo to go online or on TV to try to make others tidy up their homes. It describes them as Cleanfluencers. The article certainly picks up on a new trend, and at this stage, I am only finding the term online referencing the Guardian piece, but I may be wrong, so if anyone can find an earlier citation, please let me know.

This definitely ticks the box of being a new word arriving to fill a semantic gap. But in my opinion, it’s a terrible word, being neither easy to say nor particularly clear in its meaning when you first see it. I hope it doesn’t catch on, but I fear that now that it is being used, it will clean up.

Those with enormous social media followings are regarded as major influencers. On the flip side, I also read about Nano Influencers, who are people with much smaller social media followings but who nonetheless have the power to influence people’s views on emerging products. The suggestion of how to work with these creative souls is to harness the power of hundreds of Nano Influencers simultaneously and use their output to help to drive your brand. One Marie Kondo = 100 Nano Influencers.

Hardly surprisingly, it turns out The Guardian wrote about Nano Influencers as well last year. Is there an influential trend that The Guardian doesn’t want to influence you to think about?

alcohol-alcoholic-drunk-52507Not content with the influence of people, the Guardian also turned to influence of alcohol and write about Hangxiety, the sense of guilt and stress that often accompanies drinking too much, allied to the hangover which follows. Its lengthy article on the subject looked at the chemical influence which alcohol has on the body and the reasons why the feelings of anxiety can be unavoidable.

The main feeling I had reading this was to be reminded of Hangry, an increasingly popular word which describes the combination of being hungry and angry and the feelings of rage which can sometimes accompany the need to eat. Again, there are documented scientific reasons for this phenomenon.

I’m no scientific researcher, so I cannot comment on the validity of the findings behind these two words. But as a linguist, I am hoping we are not at a trend of combining words beginning with A with words beginning with H to create an increasing range of peculiar portmanteau words. Meet my hairy friend Andrew, or Handrew as he likes to be known. If this carries on, I’m going to get really Haggravated.

One influence we can never escape is the weather. While the cold snap in the UK hasn’t been as harsh as predicted, the same cannot be said for the extraordinarily cold weather in the US, with the term Polar Vortex making one its irregular appearances on the front pages. Much more unusual were the reports of a Sun Dog, which is a rare phenonemon where the sun reflects off ice crystals in the atmosphere and there appear to be bright, sun-like spots flanking the sun as it rises. It’s almost like you get three suns for the price of one.

And while we’re at it with the things influencing our lives, we can never escape Brexit in the UK. My favourite contribution to the debate this week, from a linguistic viewpoint, was the report that a new verb ‘To Brexit’ had been coined in Russian, loosely defined as ‘To say goodbye but not to leave’. The kind of thing you might say if you were drunk and unable to leave the room. A case of being struck down by Hangxiety, perhaps.